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Our Life Is As Fleeting and Unstable As A Burning House

The “Buddhist Doctrine” sets out essential quotes from the scriptures in a question-and-answer format so that we can learn the teachings of Master Shinran in an orderly fashion. This time, let us learn about Question 45 from Buddhist Doctrine 2.

Question: Prince Shotoku said, “This world is empty and false. Buddhism alone is true.” Write the words from Tannisho (Lamenting the Deviations) that restate this.

Answer: In this world as fleeting and unstable as a burning house, inhabited by human beings beset by worldly passions, all is idleness and foolishness, utterly devoid of truth. Only the nembutsu is true.

Master Shinran is comparing life with its endless troubles to a rough sea with endless waves and called it “the sea that is difficult to cross”. Why does life become a sea that is difficult to cross? Master Shinran taught the reason through these words from Lamenting the Deviations. He said, “That is because human beings beset by worldly passions are living in a world that is as fleeting and unstable as a burning house.” What exactly is meant by “this world as fleeting and unstable as a burning house”?

Imagine: just when one is having lunch, the fire from the house next door spreads to the eaves of one’s own house. Is there anyone who would say, “I’ll put it out after I have finished eating” in such a situation? If we are in a house that is on fire, we fret and worry and are unable to concentrate on anything. “Burning house” therefore refers to uneasiness.

“As fleeting and unstable as a burning house” means that since everything is “fleeting and unstable”, our life becomes filled with anxiety like a “burning house”. We all have something to rely on in life or something to give life meaning. This might be something like money, property, family members, health, status, or honor. However, any kind of happiness is impermanent. Nothing at all lasts forever. Master Shinran therefore taught that wife and child and property are in fact planks and logs floating in the sea.

He declared, "All is idleness and foolishness, utterly devoid of truth."

As he taught, even though one relies on their husband or wife, parting is inevitable, whether in life or in death. No child, however lovingly brought up, does exactly as the parents hope. People suffer when the one they love dies suddenly from sickness or catastrophe.

When the time comes for us to die, we must be torn from all we hold dear. We suffer, like a swimmer torn from all planks and logs, choking on salt water amidst the sea of troubles. All people are burdened with the crucial matter of the afterlife. This is our situation. But if things are only ever going to be this way for us, it would mean we were born only to suffer.

Only Amida's Vow is True

However, Master Shinran then said, “Only the nembutsu is true”. “The nembutsu” refers to the "Vow of Amida Buddha". In Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment, Master Shinran expressed Amida’s Vow as a “great ship that carries us across the sea that is difficult to cross”, and “the Vow-ship of Great Compassion”. Master Shinran taught, “There is a great ship that lifts us from the sea that is difficult to cross and bears us to the land of utmost bliss in good cheer. All people were born to be taken aboard the Vow-ship by Amida's great compassion, resolve the crucial matter of the afterlife, attain absolute happiness, and gain certainty of birth in the Pure Land.”

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